April 30, 2018 | 3:03pm ET
By Anthony Di Marco, The Fourth Period

FOR SABRES, WINNING DRAFT LOTTERY IS POETIC JUSTICE

 
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Rasmus Dahlin, defenceman

 
 

MONTREAL, QC -- In 2014, the Florida Panthers won the right to draft first-overall via the lottery. In doing so, they drafted stud defenseman Aaron Ekblad. Since being drafted, Ekblad is a Calder Trophy winner, represented the inaugural Team North America at the World Cup of Hockey and has three 30-point plus seasons under his belt.

In 2015, the Edmonton Oilers got the pleasure of selecting first overall (again) in a year that featured generational talent Connor McDavid. We all know how great McDavid has become, as already being a Hart Trophy winner and a two time 100-point plus player is just the tip of the iceberg from what we’ll see from him.

What is the common theme between both draft years: The Buffalo Sabres picking second overall.

In those back-to-back draft lotteries, the Sabres entered with the highest percentage to see their ball drawn as No.1. To the dismay of then-General Manager Tim Murray, who was very vocal about his displeasure of the results, the Sabres’ hope to secure the No.1 selection came up empty in both years.

The Sabres did not draft slouches with the second-overall selections, mind you. 

Jack Eichel, whose young career has been plagued by injuries, has shown signs of living up to the hype he had coming out of Boston University. Eichel has scored 73 goals in 209 career NHL games, and is scoring at a 28.6 goals per-82 game rate if he is able to stay healthy.

Sam Reinhart struggled early in his career to find his niche with the Sabres, but seemed to settle in this year under new Head Coach Phil Housley. Reinhart notched his highest single season point total this year, scoring 50 points while playing in all 82 games.

But even though Eichel and Reinhart have proved to be good NHL talents, one has to ask: how much farther along would the Sabres be if they had McDavid and Ekblad?

There is no point in dwelling on the past. Especially now, since Sabres GM Jason Botterhill saw his Sabres’ draw the first selection in this summer’s NHL Draft. 

In doing so, the Sabres are poised to draft highly-touted Swedish rearguard Rasmus Dahlin, who is projected to be the next great NHL defenseman.

It is a long time coming for the Sabres, who have been a team seemingly spinning their tires for the better part of a decade. After Terry Pegula bought the franchise in February of 2011, there was reason to be optimistic for the future. After buying the Sabres, Pegula promptly stated, “Starting today, the Buffalo Sabres’ reason for existence will be to win the Stanley Cup.”

But after recycling through several management groups, headlined by Murray and an incredibly brief stint from Pat LaFontaine, along with Ted Nolan and Dan Bylsma serving as bench bosses, the Sabres are still looking for answers.

Despite big acquisitions in trades and free agency (Ryan O’Reilly and Kyle Okposo being the most notable), the Sabres’ valiant efforts to make the playoffs have yet to be achieved. 

The Sabres have not made the playoffs since 2011, and the players (O’Reilly and Eichel have both been vocal about their displeasure of the lack of success) are starting to get restless. Seven years of not making the playoffs will wear on the patience of any team, and even more so when the expectations are to improve with each passing year.

The Sabres have been able to assemble an impressive forward group over the last several seasons, but the defensive and goaltending situation has been suspect.

Rasmus Ristolainen is a stud on the backend for Buffalo. The 23-year-old Finnish native has reached the 40-point plateau in each of the last four seasons, and averaged the fourth most time-on-ice per game in the NHL with 26:30 this year. But after Ristolainen, the drop off on the Buffalo defense is a steep one.

Marco Scandella’s arrival in Buffalo was as expected, but played well beyond his means, averaging over 23 minutes per game. Jake McCabe (12 points) and Nathan Beaulieu (nine points) both had disappointing seasons, while Zach Bogosian’s inability to stay healthy (playing in just 18 games) left a gaping hole on the backend.

Insert Dahlin.

The 18-year-old’s arrival will be welcomed amass amongst the Buffalo faithful, and could set up for one of the most dominant defensive pairs in all of the NHL with Ristolainen. If Botterhill could find a way to rectify the goaltending situation (Robin Lehner and Chad Johnson are both UFAs), the Sabres could be poised to turn the franchise around.

The lottery balls fell in favor of the Sabres, and with the right tweaking this off-season, the Sabres could start to see the stars align. If Botterhill can find the right fit between the pipes (Petr Mrazek might fit the bill), along with the arrival of Dahlin, the Sabres could finally live up to the expectations that Pegula had when he bought the franchise more than seven years ago.

For a city that has been championship starved, making the playoffs for the first time in eight years will not be enough to satisfy the hunger of the Sabres’ faithful, but it’ll give them a taste of things to come.

Anthony Di Marco is the NHL Correspondent for The Fourth Period.
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